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Seattle Author Kristi Coulter Recounts 12 Years of Tiptoeing over Amazon’s Male Fragility

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Many of Amazon’s worst workplace elements have been chronicled for years, from drivers pissing into bottles when they’re unable to take a bathroom break to flagrant anti-union activity.

But there’s a different, more nuanced story of the megacorp’s chaos and male fragility, now available in Exit Interview, a memoir from a 12-year Amazon vet who got sober, ran screaming, and put together a darkly hilarious tale of her experiences there. We caught up with author and Seattleite Kristi Coulter for an Exit Interview interview.

How did you deal with reliving these incredibly high-pressure stories?

It's almost hard for me still not to think, like, "What are people from Amazon going to think about this book? Am I putting the company in a light that's going to make people angry?" But a lot of that I worked through when I was writing. It took me 18 months to even feel like I had the self-esteem to write the book, because every time I would work on it, I’d think, “Oh, you're a worm. You sucked at your job.” It was Amazon's voice. I worked through so much of that in the writing process that at this point I just think, a-yuuup.

You’re blasé about it?

It’s more like: Early on, I thought of the book as a trauma memoir, and that mindset made the writing pretty unfun, not as strong. At some point I realized, this is more of a coming-of-age story, even though I was 36 when I started at Amazon. This is a hero's journey. I rescued myself. I still, you know, cover a lot of traumatic material—Amazon is a traumatic place to work, and it damaged me. Deeply. But it's very hard to look back on 12 years of your life and say, “Oh, I could have left at any time, and I didn't.” By the time I got to the end, I was like, “You went through the classic journey and came out the other end okay.” I do wish I'd had all those processing skills at the beginning of writing. But I had been gone from Amazon less than two years.

So you wanted to write a memoir while the memory was fresh?

I was still working there, my first book was about to come out, and I was thinking about what I might want to do next. I was like, “I guess I could write about Amazon? I wonder if anybody would be interested?” I was so deep inside Amazon that, even knowing how curious people were about the company, the idea that they'd want to read a memoir about it did not occur to me. I mentioned it to my agent, like, [shrugs shoulders], and she said, “Yes, please write that book.” And I was like, "Really? I don't know if I have anything to say."

Why did you feel that way?

It's funny—I was extremely aware of, like, you can't work at Amazon and not realize that half the world hates you. You personally. Especially living in Seattle, you know, I would dread people saying to me, “Everyone has to earn a living somehow.” Like I was unemployable otherwise. [Laughs] But it was more than that. When you're at Amazon, you're so unimportant. And invisible. Even knowing I’d outlasted all but like 98% of people [as a 12-year veteran] and I'd had all these huge jobs there, by the end, I still mostly thought, “You failed.” Working through the book made me realize: I failed some, I succeeded a lot.

Now that the book is out, how do you feel about Amazon actually reading it?

I’ve gotten so many notes from people I’ve never met who’ve worked at Amazon all over, in like Minneapolis or Munich. People at Amazon, especially women, are dying to read this book. I remember joking with my publisher early on: if we only sell a copy to everyone who works at Amazon, we’d make a profit.

For a lot of Amazon stuff, I wasn’t revealing anything that’s not publicly available already. That was really important to me because I wanted this to be a personal book. I had friends who were like, “I bet there’ll be Congressional hearings after your book.” I don’t see what they’d be about! It’s not that book.

Right, this isn’t a bullet-point collection of world-rollicking allegations. Your stories range from unsurprising to eww. It’s more a detailed chronicling of assholes all the way down.

Yeah, there’s a lot of them. I will say, most of the people that I worked with, I actually like quite a bit. They’re smart, creative, sometimes stoic [laughs]. But Amazon rewards a certain coldness and aggression. It also puts people under such psychotic pressure that it brings out the worst. I have a feeling there are people that I had bad experiences with that, under different circumstances, I would think, “They’re not so bad.”

You make the case that there’s something universal here—that Amazon’s problems are human problems.

Amazon is an unusually brutal place to work, but a lot of it is about people under pressure. Even the guy who at one point directly tells me I’m “stupid” and yells at me, I was like, even he was under pressure. Then I think about the super-senior executives—I see on social media, “fat-cat execs don’t do anything.” At Amazon, at least, those guys work their asses off. It’s heart-attack-at-50 kind of work. I don’t know why, like, they’re all worth $20-30 million, but they kill themselves. So I figured, even this guy above me is getting it from Jeff Bezos, and it’s a fountain, you know. A shit fountain, I guess.

Also, I wanted to write about ambition in women through myself. I’m very ambitious—I always have been. When we hear that women are ambitious, we have certain associations, so I thought, well, let’s look at that. Does it mean I was cutthroat? Probably sometimes. Is there something wrong with it? Maybe. Does it mean I put up with shit I wouldn’t have otherwise? Yeah! I wanted to write about ambition as a human emotion that women have, just like men. Writing the book forced me to get more comfortable with the idea that ambition is... I was gonna say that it’s a fine thing, that it can be a good quality. But also, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good quality or not! I have it! I have the quality of ambition. I always have.

The Amazon you describe doesn’t make space for that kind of ambition, even when you’re told you can’t progress further at the company unless you “change the world.”

That was my lowest moment, at a point when my career was going great. For this VP to sit there and say, “Just change the world”? Promotions at Amazon are chaotic for everyone. The criteria are all over the place, but there’s a specific, tactical, mapped version for a lot of people there. Men all around me had been promoted, and as far as I knew they were all good at their jobs, but there aren’t that many chances to change the world. At Amazon, like any company, you’re doing your TPS reports and your granular things. I asked this man, “Well, what would I do? What results would you want to see?” The most specific he would get was, “wheelbarrows of money.” [Laughs] I was just like, I can’t believe this. I’m at the peak of my career. I am running major businesses. And this person who I’ve known for years and is a fan of mine, he won’t have a serious conversation. That is crazy-making.

Your last memoir, Nothing Good Will Come of This, focuses more on your sobriety journey. This one links your drinking more closely to the Amazon pressure cooker.

That book is a prismatic look at my drinking and sobriety through a bunch of different lenses. It does talk about being in tech, but I didn’t want to rewrite the same thing. I’ll just say, I don't think Amazon made me. I already had whatever you needed to become an alcoholic. But Amazon definitely is a place where there's a ton of drinking. Like just a crazy amount.

Trauma-specific therapy, too, from the sound of your book?

Oh yeah, I remember my psychiatrist being like, "Oh, Amazon, They support me. I have people who've been there for six months, they're in my office, and I'm just like, 'Get out.'" [Laughs] I’ve heard a lot of people say “After I left, I had to go into trauma therapy.” It just damages people’s health so much.

I was a drinker for half my career there and sober for the other half. I proved it could be done. But it's funny that when I finally quit drinking, my biggest wish was not, “Will I be happy again,” but “Maybe I'll be better at my job”! [Laughs] I wasn’t especially well-suited for this job, but it was also just a nightmare and I thought, [sobriety] will take care of it. Within six months I realized, yeah, it was not the drinking.

What about your story have you noticed surprises people?

The chaos. There is this belief that Amazon is this well-oiled machine that is coming to take over the planet. But so many parts of Amazon are like kids putting on a show in the barn. I remember when Amazon Publishing started, people in the industry predicted we were going to steamroll them. But there were only 13 of us. Our entire company’s calendar was a literal whiteboard. We were calculating royalties in Excel manually. It was frantic.

There’s lots about duct tape and panic being Amazon’s primary binding agents—but your example also gets to how cheap the company seems.

[Laughs] You hear about tech giants like Google with their own dry cleaners and hairdressers and all that stuff. People think Amazon is like that. Amazon is austere. My monitor died once, and I had to go pick up a new one. They couldn’t bring it to my building. I had to carry it four blocks!

I’m sorry, the company that runs Amazon Prime couldn’t deliver your big, boxed monitor?

Right? In my role, that was expensive time for me to waste. Here I am walking through Belltown with a fucking box, I don’t think it even had a handle, and I hadn’t expected it so I had other stuff with me. And all around, there’s zero amenities. You get a hundred dollars off the website a year, and there’s a code that you have to find and they don’t remind you. You have to remember to go get it every year. After a couple years, I just forgot it existed.

Some of the anecdotes in this book are wild, like your colleague spending days insisting that a store’s “broccoli rabe” dish be renamed “broccoli rape,” despite your outcries.

That kind of thing happened pretty often. In my first book, there’s a part where I was the one woman on a panel hosted by Amazon for interns, and a woman asks us, “What’s it like to be here as a woman?” I gave a very diplomatic perspective, and then all the men on the panel jumped in to say that I was wrong. They were like, “This is a great company for women!” I was like I literally am the only one who could answer that. That was for me.

Is the male fragility in this book representative of the company as a whole?

I think so. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people, and many of the men I worked with are perfectly lovely. But especially in leadership, there’s a certain type of man who is very fragile—though this isn’t Amazon specific. These men where what gets to them is the idea that they might not be egalitarian. They can’t see that it’s not about them personally. It’s about systems. There are some guys at Amazon who, If you tell them, “It’s strange that most consumer purchases are controlled by women and yet there are no women in senior [leadership],” they think you’re attacking them personally. They’ll say, it’s important to understand that women often have other priorities in life, or women are too smart to want these jobs. They can’t just sit honestly and ask, what can we do to change it?

Hard to do that at a company where Jeff Bezos promotes internal stories written by men about what it’s like at Amazon to be a woman.

This guy at Amazon had written a blog post on LinkedIn in response to Jodi Kantor’s big New York Times piece about staffers crying at their desks and all that. First, he says, “I’ve been here 18 months, so I know a few things.” I was like, ohhh, I’m looking at him like an old sailor, saying, “Come on, landlubber.” He goes on about what a great company Amazon was for women. It landed on an internal email list, and I decided to reply, gently and diplomatically: “That wasn’t appropriate for you to speak to. You’re not a woman. You don’t—you can’t know what it’s like.”

So when Jeff Bezos emailed the whole company, he included a link to that guy’s post. That’s an endorsement. Jeff fucking Bezos sent that to a million people. We had a chance, while so many articles about gender were coming up, Jeff had a chance to suggest things to look at, at the very least about women, let alone other systems of privilege even I benefit from. Instead, he said, “Look at this glad-handing jackass’s blog post, I love it.” That’s when the concept of loyalty fell away for me fast.

Who at Amazon would you want most to read this book?

[Laughs] I mean, [current CEO] Andy Jassy should read the book. I know at one point when he was running AWS, he bought a copy of Brene Brown's book on shame for much of AWS’s staff, hundreds of copies. And I was like, "What?" That is the healthiest thing I've ever heard of anybody at Amazon doing, actually wanting to have a culture that was shame-free. But I also know AWS was overwhelmingly male, and I know women who had really lousy experiences there. I want him to read it. 

Part of me hopes that the guy who called me stupid reads it, but I don't think he'll give a shit. Maybe he’ll think, "I called a hundred people stupid. What's wrong with her?" Do I want Jeff Bezos to read the book? I don't know. That’s kind of terrifying. I hope his ex-wife MacKenzie [Scott] reads it. She seems pretty cool.

Kristi Coulter will discuss Exit Interview with Claire Dederer at Third Place Books, Seward Park, on Monday, September 11 at 7 pm.